Sunday, 1 May 2016

Simon Whom He Surnamed Peter - Part 15

For the next weeks, my Sunday postings will be a transcript of the book "Simon Whom He Surnamed Peter" by the Jersey historian, the Reverend G.R. Bailleine (1873 – 1966).

Most of Balleine's books are either currently in print - as for example his History of Jersey - or online in the form of PDF versions. This book is not, so this is something different. As well as being a Jersey historian, Balleine was also a priest in the Church of England, and Ministre Deservant at St Brelade's Church for a time.

The Synagogue becomes a Sect
by G.R. Balleine

A SOUL-ROCKING experience like that of Pentecost never leaves men as they were. Its first result was to fill the disciples with missionary zeal. Hitherto they had hardly tried to make converts. Now they became eager to convince everyone that their message was literally a matter of life or death. And their efforts were not in vain. This success entirely changed the character of the group. Before Pentecost they could all meet in a single room and join in a common meal; all knew one another, and, what was more important, all had known Jesus. Now the new converts swamped the original group. Many centres became necessary. The synagogue became a Sect.

But Jewish Sects never separated from the National Church. Judaism tolerated within its borders wide differences of opinion. Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes disagreed on vital points; yet they prayed side by side at the Feasts, and never tried to ex-communicate one another. The Dead Sea Scrolls have revealed another Sect of which we knew nothing. The new Sect of Nazarenes remained loyal to the Mosaic Law and regular at the Temple Services. So far removed were they from any suspicion of schism, that we read, `A large number of the Priests became obedient to the Faith', and no hint is given that they abandoned their Temple duties. (These were Priests probably of the humbler grades, not of the High-Priestly caste.)

The new Sect continued to believe and do the same as their fellow Jews; only they held two convictions the others did not share: they believed that Jesus had risen from the dead, and that He would return as Messiah.

Peter's first task was to train the new disciples. Speaking as a Jew to Jews, he could take the whole Jewish background for granted, belief in `the God of our fathers', the hope of a Messiah, the authority of the Old Testament. To this he added facts about the life and teaching of Jesus.

But two problems, on which Christian theology a little later hinged, he had not yet thought out: Who exactly was Jesus? And why did God let Him be crucified? Before long the Church answered these questions with the Doctrines of the Incarnation and the Atonement.

But, if the speeches in Acts give a true picture of his preaching, Peter had not yet reached either of these convictions. Jesus was `a man attested by God', `the Servant' of God, the `prophet like unto me' foretold by Moses, the heir promised to David, the long-awaited Messiah; and the crucifixion was still to him merely the most ghastly sin the world had ever seen. Thirty years later, as his Epistle shows, it had come to mean much more, `He bore our sins in His body on the tree.'

But of this teaching there is no trace in his early speeches. And the Ascension probably seemed something like what Greeks called an `apotheosis'. As they believed that Hercules and Aesculapius had been exalted to a place among the Gods, so Peter thought that Jesus had been caught up to God's throne.

The new Sect now attracted attention. Everyone had heard of John the Baptist; but he had preached miles away by the Jordan. But these new Baptists were baptizing in the heart of the city. Any day one might see Peter dipping somebody in one of the public pools. `These queer people,' men said, `think we have killed the Messiah, and are washing themselves to show their desire to be cleansed from all share in our guilt.' When the Twelve went to the Temple, crowds flocked round to question them; and fresh converts were won.

New adherents were baptized `in (or into) the Name of Jesus'. They pledged themselves to be Jesus-folk, to take Jesus as their Master and obey His laws. A Jew instinctively thought of religion as a Code of Law. As Pharisees kept the Rules of Hillel or else those of Shammai, so Nazarenes tried to shape their lives by the Rules of Jesus. 

So strong was this feeling that the earliest name for Christianity was `the Way'. We are told that the Jews `spoke evil of the Way'; `there arose no small stir concerning the Way'; Saul set out to arrest `any that were of the Way'. It was a new way of walking with God and walking with men; and to learn it one had to continue steadfastly in `the Apostles' teaching and fellowship', for they were the men who had lived with Jesus and remembered His rules.

Another result of Pentecost was a delightful feeling of fellowship. This often comes with the thrill of a new religious movement. `The Kingdom of God,' wrote an early Quaker, `did catch us all in a net, so that we often asked with great joy, Has Heaven come to earth?' The disciples could have said the same. There is no joy comparable to that of enthusiasts buoyed up by an ardent faith.

Their fellowship found expression in a common meal and a common purse. When Jesus was with them, He and His disciples had always eaten together. Could this survive the rapid growth of the Sect? There was a Jewish precedent. The Essenes numbered several thousands; yet for two centuries they maintained their common meals.

Peter at first tried to do the same. It was impossible, of course, to meet at a single table. Several centres had to be arranged; but the Breaking of Bread together must at all costs be continued. `They remained steadfast,' we are told, `in the Breaking of Bread.' Josephus describes the meals of the Essenes: `They enter their dining-room as a Temple, and sit in silence. The baker lays loaves in order; the cook sets food before each; but no one tastes it till prayer is offered. When they begin, and when they end, they praise God, the Life-Giver.' The Nazarenes' meal would be no less devout with one difference. Instead of solemn silence, `they ate with exultant joy'.

The evening meal and the Lord's Supper were not yet separated. References to it are too brief to make clear what meaning they attached to it. It was certainly a bond of fellowship. It was probably considered a continuation of the meals the Apostles had shared with Jesus, and therefore of the Last Supper. Since the Risen Christ had twice appeared at an evening meal, perhaps they dimly felt that He might be present with them. It is not so likely that they thought of the meal yet as a memorial of His death. To them the crucifixion was still a hideous crime to be shuddered at, not remembered with devotion.

It is even less probable that special sacredness was attached to the bread and wine. Such thoughts a little later gathered round the Supper. Twenty-five years later we meet them at Corinth. But in this dawn of Christian worship there is no trace of them.

In addition to the common meal there was the common purse. When Jesus was on earth, Judas had been treasurer, and all money had been handed to him. Peter tried to continue the plan of pooling all their funds. He did not make this compulsory. We shall see him telling Ananias: `While your field was unsold was it not your own? And, after it was sold, could you not do what you liked with the money?' But the feeling of fellowship was so strong, that Document A could say: `No one called any of his goods his own. Everything was common property; and no one was needy, for all who had land or houses sold them, and laid the proceeds at the Apostles' feet.' B says the same: `They shared all they had. They sold their lands and possessions, and divided the money among all according to their need.' Here again they were doing the same as the Essenes, of whom Josephus says: `On entering the Sect a man transfers all his property to it. Elected stewards administer the common fund.'

Among the disciples was Joseph Barnabas, whose home was in Cyprus, where he owned property. But, as one of the Tribe of Levi, he had duties in the Temple, where the Levites formed the Choir and the Temple Police. Every year he came to Jerusalem for his month on duty, and apparently stayed with an aunt, whose name was Mary. Hers was one of the houses in which the disciples met. So he got to know the Apostles, and threw in his lot with them.

A financial crisis had arisen. The poorer disciples in Jerusalem outnumbered those who had means, and funds were running low. Barnabas saved the situation. He sold his land in Cyprus, and brought the money, and laid it at the Apostles' feet. It was his all. From one of Paul's letters we learn that later he had to work for his living. But his gift brought him great gratitude. The instinct to share and share alike often appears, when religious fervour is strong; and more than one experiment has shown that, so long as the fervour lasts, Communism is not impracticable.'

But Marx would have pointed out that Peter's was not sound Communism. To sell one's property and spend the cash leads straight to bankruptcy. To live on capital is as dangerous to a group as it is to an individual. Peter, of course, knew this. But he thought the New Age was about to begin. At any moment he might see his Lord descending in the clouds. Who could provide for a future so miraculously unlike any the mind could conceive? Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow things as they are will entirely have disappeared! But he was wrong. The End was not yet. For the moment his plan produced plenty; but twenty years later foreign Churches had to raise funds to save Jerusalem Christians from starving.

Yet the ideal survived. `Call not anything thine own,' says the Epistle of .Barnabas, written about 130, `for, if you share what is immortal, much more must you share what is perishable.' And as late as the third century the Didache ordered, `Thou shalt share all things with thy brother, and shalt not call anything thine own.'

Document B tells the tragedy of Ananias. Its truth seems guaranteed by the certainty that no one would have deliberately spoilt the picture of Christian brotherhood by inventing such an ugly blot. Ananias and his wife Sapphira were Christians with property. They envied the popularity of Barnabas; so they sold a field of their own. But then they hesitated. Was it wise to give all? If they gave half, everyone would think this the whole, and they would get just as much gratitude, and still have something to fall back on if the Church should collapse. So the bag Ananias brought to the Apostles contained only part of the money. He looked up expecting thanks; but Peter was not deceived.

His knowledge need not have been supernatural. In a city like Jerusalem he may well have heard how much had been paid. He asked sternly, `Has Satan given you this idea of cheating the Holy Spirit?' People are sometimes said almost to die of shame. That day it actually happened. Ananias, smugly waiting for praise and meeting nothing but contempt, staggered and fell dead. Such deaths are not unheard of. A weak heart, a paralytic stroke, an apoplectic fit, brought on by sudden shock, may cause a death like his. In Palestine bodies must be buried promptly. So young men wrapped him in his cloak, and carried him to a tomb.

The story has a sequel. Three hours later, we are told, Sapphira arrived, knowing nothing of her husband's fate. Peter gave her a chance to explain. `Was it for so much that you sold the field?' When she replied, `It was,' he exclaimed: `Is this a plot to see how far you can go with God? I hear at the door the steps of the men who have just been burying your husband.' And she collapsed at his feet and died.

Deaths from shock are not uncommon. A slab in Devizes Market Place records: `On January 1753 Ruth Pierce of Potterne agreed with three women to buy a sack of wheat in the market, each paying her share. One of these in collecting the money discovered a deficiency, and demanded of Ruth the sum due. Ruth swore that she had paid, and called on God to strike her, if she had not. To the consternation of the surrounding multitude she instantly expired, having the money concealed in her hand.'

So Sapphira's death is not incredible. What is harder to believe is that Peter had forgotten the gentleness of Jesus with sinners.

No comments: